FEATURED ARTIST / S
Tommy Johnson; vocal , guitar.
With contributions by; Charlie McCoy , guitar; Kid Ernest Michall, clarinet, Charley Taylor, piano and others...
Genres: Mississippi Blues, Country Blues, Blues guitar.
Informative booklet notes by Paul Oliver.
Charley Patton is often considered to be the father of the Mississippi Blues, and the young, ill-fated Robert Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues as its most agonised exponent. But there is no doubt that the music of Tommy Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues at its most expressive and poetic. Johnson achieved the perfection of a regional vocal and instrumental tradition, while realising its potential for the development of a unique and personal means of communication.
The Mississippi Delta is a wedge-shaped, fertile, blacklands region between the Yazoo and the Mississippi Rivers. Near Drew, the heart of the Delta, where so many blues singers lived, Tommy Johnson apparently met up with the celebrated Charley Patton, and the encounter helped shape his career. Barely eighteen, Tommy was soon back in Terry and playing hard in the jukes, accompanying his brother LeDell. There he married one Maggie Bidwell - very likely the Maggie Campbell of his song - and he took her up to the Delta with him to exchange stanzas and musical ideas with Patton, Willie Brown and the Drew musicians.
If they influenced him, in no way was Johnson a copyist; on the contrary, he was an individualist, whose sense of timing and rhythm, sensitive guitar playing, and impressive vocal range, were innate. They were brought together in Memphis, in 1928, on some of the most memorable recordings ever made of Mississippi Blues.
Cool Drink Of Water with its loose structure and unerring falsetto calls, the insistent momentum of Big Road Blues, the field holler singing of Bye Bye Blues, and the melisma of Lonesome Home Blues illustrate Johnson's combination of strength and sensibility. On some titles he was complemented by the young Charlie McCoy who played second guitar, mandolin-fashion, interweaving with Johnson's deceptively relaxed instrumental line.
In the main, Tommy Johnson used traditional verses, remodelling them to suit the overall theme of blues. But Canned Heat was a notable exception, a song about his addiction to crude alcohol. In a later session, on which his friend Ishman Bracey accompanied him on a couple of titles, he was less well served by the infamous recording quality of the Paramount company. But the quality of his blues was unimpaired on Slidinï¿½ Delta, and I Wonder hints at the humour for which he was known among his friends.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story in this documentation of a remarkable blues talent is the discovery, sixty years after it was made, of the sole known copy of his coupling Riding Horse and Alcohol and Jake Blues. A version of Maggie Campbell the former is much impaired, but on the latter, which is adapted from Canned Heat, we can hear Tommy Johnson fresh and relaxed, and at the height of his abilities. He lived on, unrecorded, for a quarter of a century; much addicted, but much admired and much copied by those who knew him.